World Affairs: Maldives

Former President Yameen’s campaign to get India out of Maldives

Print edition : December 31, 2021

Former President Abdullah Yameen arriving at a criminal court for his trial in Male on November 28, 2019. Photo: AHMED SHURAU/AFP

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih on the sidelines of the United Nations session in New York on September 23, 2019. Photo: PIB/PTI

Former President Abdullah Yameen is leading a concerted campaign to remove India’s presence from his island nation. Solving the problem of deteriorating bilateral relations may require the ruling BJP to change what it is doing at home in the case of Muslims.

Relations between India, the world’s largest democracy, and Maldives, among the world’s newest democracies, are in the process of being redefined by a long-drawn-out protest in the nation of a 1,000-plus islands: an opposition-led and backed “India Out” campaign aimed at throwing Indian military personnel and their equipment out of Maldives.

The campaign had its genesis in 2018, soon after the then President, Abdullah Yameen, asked India to withdraw the two helicopters and a Dornier aircraft it had stationed in Maldives for search-and-rescue and life-saving missions. The Maldivian viewpoint was that if these were gifts from India, then Maldivian pilots should be operating the aircraft, not Indians.

The reasoning has reached the level of propaganda and been repeated many times over. On December 5 this year, Mohamed Ameen, former Director, Operations, Island Aviation Services Limited, tweeted: “Accepting a Dornier from India is not an issue. We are against deploying Indian military with Dorniers. We have enough experience to operate and choice is to change the registry of the gift or take it back with Indian military personnel.”

On November 15, he wrote: “Dornier is not rocket science. Keeping Indian soldiers or budget issue is utter nonsense. We operated 5 Dorniers and we are experienced enough. Maldivian can operate and deliver MNDF (Maldives National Defence Force) requirements. Choice should be change the registry of the gift or take it back.” Many from the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and allied parties share the view that the Indian military should leave Maldives. Former Minister Lubna Zahir tweeted on December 6: “I love Indian food, Indian products, Indian pharmaceuticals but just not Indian military in our soil.” Another former Minister, Ahmed Thaufeeg, tweeted on November 21: “Maldivians throughout the country are showing their anger and frustration over the Indian military presence in their country.”

Almost the entire campaign is propelled by Yameen’s PPM. On November 20, it tweeted from its official handle: “India Military Out echoes in Fuvahmulah City.” A large crowd took part in a peaceful rally held in Fuvahmulah City against the Indian military presence in Maldives.” In September, another outfit that is against the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party organised a motorbike rally. On December 4, following the build-up of this campaign over a period, Yameen called for the removal of the Indian military presence in Maldives. In some ways, this is similar to the anti-India sentiment that was built up in the run-up to the Indian airport operator GMR being thrown out of the country in 2012.

Unlike in Sri Lanka, where the main Sinhala political parties seek to maintain good relationships with both India and China, Yameen’s PPM has decided to put all its eggs in the China basket. The move stems from Yameen’s grievance against India that it did not protect him from arrest and incarceration after he lost the last presidential election. A former Indian diplomat said that there was no reason for India to even informally sound out the new government about keeping Yameen out of prison because it was Yameen who allowed China to gain a major foothold in Maldives.

Solih’s election and later

Soon after Ibrahim Mohamed Solih was elected President as a compromise candidate in 2018, he came up with the “India First” policy, while India was hoping and pushing for an “India Only” policy. In fact, with a view to improving India-Maldives relations, Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended the swearing-in ceremony and signed a few major deals aimed at the development of Maldives.

Solih, like all Maldivians, was aware of the fact that his country depends on India, its nearest neighbour, for essential supplies. Many Maldivians seek treatment and education in India and have business ties with the country. Solih was under pressure to reform the ways of Maldives under Yameen, who had preferred China over India as the main partner for Maldives. Yameen made the right noises when he was in Delhi but had let China into multiple sectors in Maldives that were of interest to India.

Solih had the difficult job of assuring India that China would not be provided more room in Maldives, and even though India had wanted a Maldives that would only seek the support of India for any issue, Solih negotiated his way deftly and proposed the India First policy. While Solih’s new policy did not block China altogether, it gave India much more space by way of a defence cooperation agreement, which has still not been made available to the Majlis (the parliament), and a project to decongest the capital, Male. India had also announced budgetary support to Maldives to overcome massive deficits. The decongestion plan involves building new bridges linking Male to three nearby islands. The contentious part of the India-Maldives deal is the Indian plan to help Maldives build a coastguard station in the archipelago nation and open a new consulate in Addu, the southern-most atoll.

India’s Military intervention in 1988

In the normal course of things, a few Indian military personnel operating the two defence helicopters and a Dornier should not be a problem in a country such as Maldives where they have been deployed repeatedly. The irony is not lost on anyone that it was India’s military intervention in 1988 that repulsed a near-certain overrunning of Maldives by mercenaries. Soon after the 2004 tsunami, the first plane to touch down in a Maldivian airport was an Indian Coast Guard Dornier.

The PPM’s demand today is having an impact even though it does not have countrywide support. This is not because of the Indian military presence alone. The propaganda relies more on some events in India and the reaction of the Indian state to these events. The systematic violence against Indian Muslims is reaching the multimedia phones of ordinary Maldivians, many of whom have come to look at India with suspicion. Maldives is a Sunni Muslim nation, where one can be a citizen only if one is Sunni Muslim. When sophisticated and targeted communication tools of propaganda are made available to the information technology cells of the PPM, they become a heady mix.

The fix for India-Maldives problems does not lie exclusively in the archipelago nation or in a rag-tag opposition raising slogans or commandeering people for a road show. A lot of it lies in what the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is doing at home in the case of Muslims.

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